Friday, December 28, 2007

"Dr. Stokes is convicted of three different types of fraud convictions," U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist said. "He's not convicted of malpractice."

Employee: Stokes used same syringe many times

GRAND RAPIDS -- A former worker for Dr. Robert Stokes testified this afternoon that Stokes carried the same syringe as he went from patient to patient.

Jaime Droog suspected that Stokes used the same syringe on different patients. Stokes also re-used blades on his scalpels rather than discarding them like other doctors do.

Her testimony came as Stokes is to be sentenced for defrauding insurance companies of nearly $2 million.

Droog is also among thousands of Stokes' former patients allegedly put at risk by his unsanitary practices. Many were in the courtroom gallery. His former patients sent so many letters to the judge that he did not have time to read them all.

"Dr. Stokes is convicted of three different types of fraud convictions," U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist said. "He's not convicted of malpractice."

Stokes is to be sentenced today for defrauding insurance companies of nearly $2 million.

Still, several former patients of Stokes are expected to testify this afternoon in his sentencing hearing, with some telling how they visited his office numerous times to remove supposedly cancerous lesions and paid thousands in expenses not covered by insurance.

A patient, Anne Gulch, testified that Stokes told her in 2006 that she needed 30 to 40 moles removed because of their irregular shape and color. Stokes' staff told her the moles were pre-cancerous.

After she had five removed, she went to another doctor who told that that "nothing needed to be removed." She believed that Stokes only removed freckles.

Her testimony was to show that Stokes billed insurance companies for unnecessary procedures.

Hastings Mayor Robert May, who went to Stokes more than four years ago to have a lesion removed from his ear, plans to say his piece to the judge.

May said he ended up going back to Stokes every few weeks after Stokes told him he needed to have a different spot removed from his body, or that a lesion had become infected.

"It just got to the point we could not afford it any longer," May said outside the courtroom today, describing how his insurance carrier would not pay the full expense. He stopped going to Stokes in 2003.

A statistician testified in the hearing that Stokes, whose scheme included telling patients they had cancer so he could up fees for minor procedures, had bilked Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Medicare for $626,823 from 2001 to 2003. The figures did not include billings to other insurance companies.

Dennis Gilliland, a Michigan State University professor and expert in statistics, provided the loss estimate as a government witness.

Another estimate said that he fraudulently billed Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for more than $1.9 million between 2001 and 2006.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 12 1/2 to 15 1/2 years, but prosecutors are urging the judge to consider a longer sentence, citing "an epidemic of fraud that infected Dr. Stokes' practice."

Stokes, 56, who worked from an office in East Grand Rapids and lives in a 14,000-square-foot estate on Reeds Lake, was convicted in April on 31 counts of health-care fraud.

Stokes' lawyers, who described him as a caring, compassionate doctor, sought a light sentence. They argued the feds over-estimated insurance losses and that his sentence shouldn't be influenced by allegations about inadequate sterilization of surgical instruments.

Letters from former patients, employees, colleagues, relatives and friends described a different Stokes: An honest, caring and dedicated doctor with high standards.

The conviction was Stokes' second. In November 1999, the then-47-year-old doctor shoplifted $33.94 worth of items -- sunglass cases, key chains, expandable tote bags and rolls of athletic tape -- from a Meijer store in Grand Rapids.

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